Hi! I'm Lynn and this is a forum to share my interpretations of books, music, or to comment on life in general. I hope those who visit will leave comments to create a true discussion. Rather than summarize books, I provide my personal reactions to what I've read: how it connects to my life and/or me personally. Having been indisposed in 2017, I am trying to get back in the blogging game, starting with Literary Wives (January 2018), Book Challenge by Erin 8.0, and 24in48Readathon January 2018.
I absolutely love this series and feel as if I am there...in Africa, as I read each installation. Book #17, Precious and Grace, is due to be released October 11, 2016. I need to catch up before that time and then post a review on this blog, though I have mentioned McCall Smith and this series, as well as others of his (e.g. Corduroy Mansions and Isabel Dalhousie),
The Cross-Cultural Book Club I founded at Borders read this at the same time as
King Leopold's Ghost to get a more comprehensive picture of the invasion of Africa
by greedy self-serving white men.
My Goodreads review:
This was one remarkably illuminating fictional work!
This work depicts how well-meaning yet ignorant self-centered
narrow-minded "conservative" people
(typical "white folk," in my opinion) can destroy so much
while intending to "convert" others (especially "savages")
to their belief system. This "preacher"/white "American"
was extremely disrespectful of the people whose country and
village he had "invaded" and disrupted! Not only that,
but he drags his family out to a very primitive
(in comparison to the U.S.) society with absolutely
no preparation or research to determine what they might need most to survive, let alone thrive. This was an extremely powerful and intense read; enlightening, to say the least! Lesson: meaning well is not enough! Be smart! Research! The fact that you have white skin does not make you smarter than anyone else,
and especially doesn't mean you know what is best for anyone else!
(Title links to synopsis.) This book was a Borders Book Club read and will also count for the following challenges: 20 Books of Summer and Historical Fiction. The only other book written by Kearsley that I have read is The Firebird which I found to be excellent, and it makes me want to read The Winter Sea, her first book in the Slains series! Honestly, I've added nearly every single one of her releases to by TBR listing! (I actually own a couple more of hers, but have yet to read them.)
I have a special place in my heart for books that manage to alternate between two different settings/times/storylines, successfully interweaving them seamlessly in the end. This book certainly does that...and so much more! Borders Book Club members really enjoyed it, with the exception of one who still finds it difficult to follow alternating storylines. But I'm sure she'll get the hang of it over time. :)
Sara copes with Asperger's--her senses are, well..."very sensitive" and she can easily become "jangled and jarred," though her cousin, Jacqi is ever faithful and watchful, helping her to successfully negotiate society whenever possible. Sara is, and always has been, a 'numbers person.' Though numbers may serve a different purpose for her than for many others, as they provide a calming influence when her nerves are riled, helping her prevent major meltdowns when provoked. Jacqi and Sara are at a family wedding when Jacqi hands a piece of paper to her with the following numbers and text written on it:
As it turns out, this is a cipher from a handwritten diary that a famous historian is determined to have decoded, as he is convinced it will provide him with needed material for a book he is writing about the Jacobite exiles who existed some 300 years in the past. Since Sara is currently out of work, she agrees to meet the author to see if the job of transcribing this diary is something she would want to do, and he would want her to do for him. There is one minor glitch--the job itself would have to be completed in Paris, France--they're currently located in England. Sara translates this message within 17 minutes:
Letter intercepted. France unsafe. (10)
This message alone is enough to pique Sara's interest in the diary and what information it may contain. It appears Sara would be very well-qualified to complete this type of code-breaking work, given her interest in numbers, her skills, and her perfectionist tendencies.
Mary Dundas had authored this diary and when we meet her in mid-January of 1732:
It seemed on that morning...that the new year intended to go on exactly the same as the last, bringing all the excitement, surprise, and adventure she'd come to expect in her twenty-one years: namely, none. (26)
This made me chuckle and smile. In discussing citizenship, Mary declares herself "nationless" as her mother was French, but her father was "an exile at the French court of a foreign king who had himself no country and no crown." This was King James VIII of England who had been denied the throne, first settling in France and eventually Rome, under the protection of the Pope. Though she remembers little of her life during those first six years with her parents, she clearly remembers the day her father left,
"Now, Mary," he had told her, "be a good lass for your uncle and your aunt, and mind your manners you've been taught, and use the sense that you've been given, and I promise you,
you'll have a better life here than I ever could have given you."
At least that's what she thought he'd said. The years, perhaps, had rearranged his words and phrased them into a more sentimental speech within her memory,
the same memory that insisted she'd replied to him, "I want to stay with you."
And that his thumb had brushed a tear from her hot cheek, and he had said,
"We do not always get the things we want."
She did remember, clearly, that she'd cried for him and called him back,
and that he had not turned. (32)
This passage made me tear up. How awful for a 6-year-old child, and she had siblings from whom she had been separated, too! Though suddenly, her younger brother (by 4 years), Gaspard, reappears, wanting to bring her to his home. I personally thought this felt a bit too sudden and spontaneous...but you hope you can trust your own brother, right?!? Though Mary was also a bit hesitant, asking her aunt if she was to have a choice, and the woman replied to her, "My dear, you always have a choice." Those prove to be prophetic words over time... Sara is a very hard worker, 'driven' is the word I believe might best describe her work ethic. Mary is similarly a very hard worker, though their 'work' is of very different substance for each of them. Mary's is to serve as a member of a company of spies while Sara's is to unravel the various codings used to record Mary's experiences. While Mary's world expands to include situations she could never have imagined so does Sara's... Both women must be brave in their own way as they face challenges, Mary as an actor and Sara as a code/cipher breaker, but also as they each learn to trust and eventually love another. The one similarity between the two women in this respect was not to assume, but rather to allow themselves to get to know each person as an individual, regardless of their initial impression. Kearsley better explains some aspects of Asperger's through Sara:
I'd always been puzzled when books about people with Asperger's claimed that
we didn't have empathy...My problem wasn't that I didn't understand their feelings,
only that I didn't have a clue how to respond to them.
I never knew the proper thing to do or say. I wasn't good at comforting. (207)
Sara has a huge lesson in 'synchronicity,' as I term it. She allows herself to 'comfort' Noah and in turn learns several different things, not the least of which is a key to breaking the newest cipher she has encountered in the diary...allowing her to continue working and translating. Having felt distinctly uncomfortable in the presence of children in the past, this is a breakthrough for her. This mirrors Mary's acceptance of MacPherson and the sense of 'protection' she begins to feel when in his presence, something to which I could personally relate. When I first met my husband...let's call him "Mr. G," and we started spending time together, I experienced that same feeling of being 'protected' while with him. I later confessed that to him and learned there were underlying reasons that probably contributed to my feeling that way in his presence, but it also informed me of a much deeper, more 'spiritual,' if you will, connection between the two of us. So I hoped this connection would prove to be just as happy for Mary in the end, as it has for me!
I had to laugh as in one of the confrontations between Mary and MacPherson as they are about midway in their travels, Mary states that Frisque, her cocker spaniel, needs "to do his necessary business," so therefore she must leave the room.
Whether MacPherson believed her or not he gave no indication,
but answered her with a brief nod, that although not completely polite, was not rude.
As with most of his gestures, as Mary had found, it fell stubbornly somewhere between. (316)
Ah, yes, that stoicism one might expect of a 'protector' of clandestine mission teams! And as they all learn, MacPherson is one smart man in many ways, particularly with regard to outwitting the 'other side,' as it were. And even if his plans go awry, he is still capable of saving them all. Mary begins to see a small chink appear periodically in MacPherson's armor, as in the discussion with Thomson's associate regarding slaves, when she states, "Slavery is a kind of death." He waxes on about how "well treated" are some of the slaves, etc., denouncing her "sentiment" as "wrong," when MacPherson intercedes, "She has a right to think as she decides." Mary sees for an instant "a pain so deep and dark" as she had never seen before in his eyes...as he defended her right to voice her opinion. At one point, Mary asks "Hugh" (MacPherson's 'Christian name') if he would have killed her if she had tried to mail the letter she'd written to end her participation in this mission, and he replies, "The letter's burnt, and I've not killed ye. Let the past be past." Hah! At least he's willing to forgive, it seems. And then Luc is, Sara discovers, all too familiar with Asperger's and the meltdowns it can cause, since his own brother has dealt with it his whole life. Luc knows exactly how to comfort ('protect'?) those who must cope with the symptoms. Sara serves as a matchmaker of sorts, insisting that Jacqi bring the author to Chatou where she is staying. She hopes to reunite Claudine and Alistair, as she now realizes Claudine truly loves the man. She also realizes her own love as Mary's final entry mirrors her own thoughts and feelings:
In truth there is but one man in the whole of Rome whose honor I am certain of,
whose friendship I have now come to rely upon, and if it were my choice to make,
I would lay all my heart before him and refuse to leave his side.
My father said we do not always get the things we want, and he was right;
for though my aunt once reassured me I would always have a choice,
if there is one before me now I do confess I cannot see it, so instead I must-- (449)
And it is at this point that Sara realizes she does have a choice, and she follows through on her own decision. Upon learning of Hugh MacPherson's life experiences, Mary can only comment, as she watches him approach...
"...surely every broken thing can be rebuilt." (481)
As she states to Hugh, when he questions her regarding her determination "to go home,"
Mary gave a little shrug and looked deliberately away.
"Home, as you once told me, is not always where you left it." (487)
Ah, so true. Home is where you make it for yourself. Just as friends are "family you choose," one of my favorite sayings! And so, life continues, and couples try to make a go of living it together.
In Kearsley's notes regarding the characters, she reminds me of Ariel Lawhon's thoughts about Ritzi and her treatment of this character as a villain or not, in The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress and the relief she felt when contacted by the real-life child of this historical character, as expressed in this follow-up posting to my review. I can appreciate the predicament for authors as they construct a fictional account of historical events. As Kearsley states,
It's one of my personal quirks that I can't make a person a villain unless I'm convinced,
from the records available, that's what he was.
However long dead these people might be, they were--and remain--people first,
and as such they deserve to be written about with respect. (506)
I would think this a fair way to handle it. And we all know that people can be very complex, although they may appear to be villainous, the reality is that they most likely have a much gentler side, at the very least on occasion.
Just as Hugh requests Mary to create a "different" ending, we learn that is exactly what Kearsley did for Marie Anne Thérèse Dundas, baptized on July 25, 1710, and died September 4, 1710.
She wasn't given a chance at life. So I gave her one.
Writers can't truly change history, but we can decide...where a story should end.
Not being fond of the ending of Mary's tale, I wrote a different one.
I wrote a better one. (513)
As I reviewed portions of this book where I had left markers,
I had to stop myself from continuing to reread it!
That, is the mark of a book I truly love reading.
I was shocked to realize how long this book was,
because I was so totally enthralled while reading it
that I didn't remember it being very long.
I highly recommend this one--very enjoyable with complex
It is immediately apparent that Serafina is no typical young girl! She lives with her father, hidden in the basement of the Biltmore Estate. How, you might ask, is that accomplished? Mmm...very carefully? Yes, that would be the answer. However inexplicable or impossible this may initially appear,
it is at once made believable by the historical knowledge that Serafina's "Pa" helped to construct the estate and indulged himself with a free, though perhaps less than desirable to most people, place to live, hidden away behind the boiler in the protection of the workshop. Since her father was still employed by George and Edith Vanderbilt to maintain the generator and other aspects of the mansion, this was possible.
As a person who shares her house with 4 kitties, I was immediately struck by the similarities between feline and child:
She had spent most of the day napping in her favorite out-of-the-way places (1)
Her first thought as she looked around her and listened out into the reaching darkness
was that it felt like a good night for hunting. (2)
Careful not to wake [her father], she slinked off her mattress, padded across
the workshop's gritty stone floor, and snuck out into the winding passageway.
She loved to prowl through the endless corridors and shadowed storage rooms.
She knew the touch and feel, the glint and gloom, of every nook and cranny.
This was her domain at night, and hers alone.
She hear a faint slithering just ahead. The night was beginning quickly.
She stopped. She listened.
Two doors down, the scrabbling of tiny feet on bare floor. (3)
When she was ten years old, she finally asked, "Do I have a job like everyone else, Pa?" He replied of course, "an extremely important position,...I reckon you're Biltmore Estate's C.R.C...you're the Chief Rat Catcher." Serafina had left dead rats she had captured during the night beside her father's cot when younger. This reminded me so much of the first (and only, thankfully!) time my 18-year-old Smokie had done this. She was about four months old when she left a dead mouse on top of my pillow one night! I understood this as an offering to demonstrate her prowess, but... Needless to say, I was just grateful to have looked down and noticed it before I unsuspectingly jumped into bed. I realized the importance of this 'ritual,' so I very gently picked Smokie up, holding her in one arm, while with my other hand, I grabbed a Kleenex, picked up the mouse by its tail, and explained to Smokie as we walked down the stairs and out of the house, that although I could appreciate her skill and willingness to 'hunt,' this was not an appropriate place to leave such 'offerings.' I was living in the country, with no more than 0-2 houses per square mile, so I had to always keep traps set, 'cause there were mice who inevitably made it inside every once in awhile. Though she did manage to hunt others and 'play' with them until they died, she never brought them to my bed ever again, leaving them where they lay. (I knew she understood!) :) And, of course, those were mice, a totally different animal than a rat! Rats grow to be very LARGE in comparison and can cause tons more damage. And rats...well, they're detestable! Though I do know two people who keep rats as pets...that is different...at least for them, though not for me! ;)
As she releases her latest two conquests into the forest, for the first time she could remember she was intensely drawn to enter the forest and explore "beneath leaf and twig,...rocks and dells, the streams and wonders."
"Never go into the forest," he had told her many times. "There are dark forces there that no one understands, things that ain't natural and can do ya wicked harm." (8)
Serafina is 12 years old now and beginning to question some things about her life:
"...keep yourself scarce...Don't let anyone get a good look at you...
don't tell anyone your name or who you are."
...she didn't know exactly why she and her Pa lived the way they did.
She didn't know why her father hid her away from the world, why he was ashamed of her,
but she knew one thing for sure: that she loved him with all her heart,
and the last thing she ever wanted to do was to cause him trouble. (11)
Once Serafina witnesses what she assumes to be evil black magic at work in the bowels of the Biltmore basement, a dank and dreary portion where she has never before ventured, she is now the 'hunted' and coaches herself through hiding and remaining as still and quiet as possible, telling herself, "Just stay still, little mouse," although she
"wanted to break cover and flee so bad,...she knew that the dead mice were the dumb mice
that panicked and ran. She told herself over and over again,
"Don't be a dumb mouse. Don't be a dumb mouse." (25)
Though her plight was seriously dangerous, I did have to chuckle at her 'self-coaching' to remain silent and still, thereby avoiding detection. It is the next day that she decides to go upstairs to tell someone what she witnessed the night before, since her father doesn't believe her story. It is then that she meets 'young Master,' Braeden, the orphaned nephew whom George and Edith have 'taken in' to their home and treat as their own child. Braeden has a 'way with animals' that goes beyond the realm of typical 'human-animal interaction' and he seems to be able to connect with Serafina in much the same way. This one meeting and its aftermath unleashes a series of events, conversations, and situations that eventually make Serafina aware of her own origin, lead her to suspect one member of the Vanderbilt guest party of being an evildoer, and meet her own mother, 'face-to-face,' as it were!
As Serafina learns more about "the man in the Black Cloak," she realizes that
just about everyone had a special talent or skill, something they were naturally
drawn to or good at, and then they worked years to master it.
Nobody knew how to do everything. It wasn't possible...
It made her think that maybe God intended for them all to fit together,
like a puzzle made whole. (129)
Little does she realize just how much she has already 'pieced together' of this mystery and its underlying solution. It is the inscription on the winged Angel monument in the green glade next to the haunted cemetary that initially puzzles her:
OUR CHARACTER ISN'T DEFINED
BY THE BATTLES WE WIN OR LOSE,
BUT BY THE BATTLES WE DARE TO FIGHT. (139)
Serafina does not hesitate to choose the most dangerous battle of all--'uncloaking' the Man in the Black Cloak, serving as bait to lure him to his undoing...
Braeden gives her the very first wrapped gift she has ever received in her 12 years, and unwittingly supplies her with an appropriate 'costume' to use in her most dangerous mission. Though Serafina knows she is a 'creature of the night,' she decides that through her own actions she will prove herself to be of either 'darkness' or 'light,' though she's heard many people speak of 'creatures of the dark' as purely 'evil.'
She knew now that there were darker forces in the world than she had ever imagined,
and brighter ones, too. She didn't know exactly where she fit into it all,
or what role she would play, but she knew now that she was part of it, part of the world,
not just watching it. And she knew that her fate wasn't set by how or where she was born,
but the decisions she made and the battles she fought.
It didn't matter if she had eight toes or ten, amber eyes or blue.
What mattered was what she set out to do. (292)
It seems this idea of determining your own fate has been a theme